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What the suspension of the New START Treaty could mean for the environment

Updated: Jul 10, 2023

2011. The year the United States and the Russian Federation first entered the New START Treaty, an agreement on the usage and mutual inspection of nuclear weapons. Yesterday, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, announced the suspension of the New START Treaty, which today stands as the last remaining arrangement between the two countries for limits on nuclear arms. While this did not mark the complete destruction of the treaty, it’s a startling and worrying move towards the first use of nuclear weapons since World War 2.

When discussing nuclear war, we often look at its effect on humans. Though incredibly understandable, it leaves little room for another victim: the environment. Before we can understand the impact that nuclear war could have on our planet, we first need to learn what happens during a nuclear bomb detonation. The first thing that forms is the fireball, a large mass of heated air that can vaporize anything it comes into contact with. This vaporized material then creates a cloud, famously nicknamed the mushroom cloud. After that, the mushroom cloud mixes with radioactive material before cooling and becoming dust, known as fallout.

With regard to the environment, what would this destruction do? Initially, the main ruin comes from the vaporization at the site of the blast. After the initial detonation, however, the fallout is the more lasting and long-reaching effect.

Radiation warning sign

Fallout can travel long distances—much farther

than the initial site—and is incredibly dangerous. It can contaminate the air, soil, water, and food supply. It can also spread radiation, something that negatively affects plants, animals, and humans.

On a larger scale, nuclear weapons can deplete the ozone layer and speed up the effects of climate change. In the most drastic of cases, the detonation of nuclear weapons could result in a nuclear winter where smoke from the blast would block sunlight and create a cloud of darkness over the planet. This darkness would kill off plants worldwide, leading to large-scale famine and death.

While the suspension of the New START Treaty by Vladimir Putin does not automatically mean the use of nuclear weapons is in our near future, it’s important to remember the impact their usage could have on our environment and us.

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